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Growing up in Tehran, he said, he was 12 when “I think different than other girls the same age.”

He wanted to be a boy.

But Iran, a traditional Islamic country, is not open-minded or educated about LGBT people, Aren said in an interview last week at the NSC office. In fact, in Iran a person can be executed for being gay.

He kept his secret from his family, but his mother, a nurse, would wonder why Aren - as a girl - didn’t express interest in boys.

Aren began dressing like a boy and had short hair. At about 18 years old, he had a girlfriend, whom he kept secret from his family.

One day, when they were in a park for women only, a female police officer asked if Aren was a boy or girl and tapped Aren. His girlfriend got angry and asked the officer, “What are you doing?”

The police ended up arresting the girlfriend because she got belligerent. They didn’t arrest Aren but had him write a statement promising he would act more like a girl, he said.

When he was about 21, Aren and his girlfriend had a party at his father’s house to celebrate their third anniversary. His father was not home at the time; his parents had divorced.

At the party, a friend’s two daughters took a photo of Aren with his girlfriend. After an argument, they threatened to give the photo to the government and to Aren’s family, Aren said. “I am so scared,” he recalled. That’s when he and his girlfriend decided to flee Iran, without telling his family, taking a train to Turkey.

In Turkey, he registered with the police and went to apply for refugee status with the UNHCR. The police and UNHCR directed him and his girlfriend to live in Kayseri, a city in central Turkey, where he stayed for 2 1/2 years until he came to the U.S. as a refugee.

People in Turkey, as in Iran, discriminated against him, Aren said. An old woman in his neighborhood would spit at him because of the way he looked.

One night, some men knocked on his and his girlfriend’s door, scaring them and saying they were police. The next day, Aren said, he went to the police station, but authorities there said they hadn’t knocked on his door.

Ten months ago, Aren and his girlfriend were resettled as LGBT refugees in Philly, but they have since broken up. Because of the discrimination he faced in Iran and Turkey, when he arrived here, “I think I am zero,” he said.

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